New Yorkers know tourists when they see them. A predominant give-away? They look up! Like the indifferent, teenage, older sibling who has “seen it all” and no longer sees the point to stop and gaze, New Yorkers tend to walk along, head down, and scoff at those childish tourists.
Now, to be fair, it’s not just looking up that makes the New Yorkers scoff. The annoyance is mostly about the inconvenience that stopping and gazing. Not one, but two, three…a crowd forms and, before they realize it, you realize that the sidewalk is blocked. Don’t they know that we have jobs, families, travels, and coffee to get to? Maybe yes, maybe no. Could they at least try to pay attention and, oh I don’t know, stand to the side? Perhaps. But this is beside the point. There is, in fact, something deep and beautiful about this phenomenon of stopping and gazing that we New Yorkers should learn.
Why don’t New Yorkers look down? For one, because we have seen it, for the most part. The first impression has past; the honeymoon phase has waned and, for many, gone black. For another, we prefer looking down. And we like it even more when we’re looking down on something—whether from the skyscraper, our office building, or apartment (or friend’s penthouse)—there’s a power dynamic at play.
In Kinfolk’s Design magazine, volume 18, Ilse Crawford, founder of StudioIlse, dialogues with Hugo MacDonald about the way architecture speaks about and into human nature. Crawford explains that, “At StuioIlse, we talk about making physical space more like the physical embodiment of human behavior…” She goes on to explain the first-impression of a building and how “We [designers] should be conscious of choosing things that affect the way we feel…” Even more so, designers should consider the question, “How is a product going to affect you?” How do buildings, especially of the tall, skyscraper kind, make people feel; how do they affect us? While there is an unavoidable power-dynamic, it is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, the affect is intimidating, because the feeling it invokes is humbling.
So not only does architecture matter, our response to it matters. Buildings are, after all, a type of art—an artificial product of man’s design. So just like other pieces of art, there is a proper response to it that we should practice.
Susannah Black recently wrote in Fare Forward about the city in her article “New York, New Jerusalem.” For all the difficulties and hardships of the city, Black reminds us about the true nature of a city in the first place. She points to the hope that, “though we began in a garden, we will end in a city. And it may be that we can learn something about that city by understanding what a good city here is.” When asked what she thinks about skyscrapers and the imposition they pose by invoking a desire to be the one standing high looking down, Black looked at the history of architecture. She specifically noted gothic buildings and how she believes skyscrapers will be in the city of the new earth. For one, there is a new appreciation for the beauty of a city from atop a building, similar to the height of a mountain. Even more importantly, she believes cities play a crucial role in their affect on us—calling us to look up, to remember our place, and to be drawn to what is greater.
So, instead of scoffing, we should learn from the excitement of the tourist in the spirit of a curious child—we should learn to stop and look up.